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6 Facts You Might Not Know About Stephen Sondheim

Inspired by the new HBO documentary, ''Six by Sondheim''. logo

Six by Sondheim, a new documentary about composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, premieres tonight on HBO. Directed by Sondheim's frequent collaborator James Lapine, the film explores the creation of six Sondheim tunes — "Something's Coming," "Opening Doors," "Send in the Clowns," "I'm Still Here," "Being Alive," and "Sunday," — and how they factor into his own personal and creative life.

To whet your appetites, we've jotted down some facts that you might not know about the legendary writer. For more of these (and there are plenty) be sure to tune in to the film at 9pm (check local listings).

Stephen Sondheim
(© David Gordon)

1. The only autobiographical song Sondheim says he has ever written is "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along. The tune is inspired by the struggle that he and "all of us in the '50s" endured as they tried to make their work known, "knocking on doors of producers and trying to get heard."

2. After Sondheim didn't receive mention for his lyrics in the out-of-town reviews of West Side Story, composer Leonard Bernstein decided to take his name off the bill so Steve would get all the credit. The young writer graciously accepted this gesture, but declined Bernstein's offer to adjust the royalties in Sondheim's favor. "If only somebody would have put a gag in my mouth," Sondheim now says with his typically sharp sense of humor.

3. Sondheim had never been married (or even in a serious relationship) when he and George Furth wrote Company, a musical about marriage. To research the topic, he chatted with his friend Mary Rodgers, asked her to talk about her two marriages, and began taking notes.

4. When Sondheim writes, he often does so under the influence of alcohol, "because it loosens you up" and allows you to get past your inhibitions. The only score Sondheim ever wrote while drinking just water was for the 1974 French film, Stavisky. It did not need lyrics.

5. Sondheim's famous collection of games started when a friend gifted him a framed puzzle, an attractive-looking, anti-Semitic diversion called "The New and Fashionable Game of the Jew." Without having money to buy artwork for the walls of his first apartment, up it went, along with other framed puzzles and games because they were inexpensive.

6. While many of his shows flopped on Broadway, Sondheim only considers one, Do I Hear a Waltz?, coauthored with Richard Rodgers and Arthur Laurents (based on Laurents' play The Time of the Cuckoo), to be his real failure. Why? He believes he wrote it for the wrong reasons, namely that it would be easy and "a quick buck." The only reason to write, Sondheim says, is to do so "out of passion."